Small College Sports

Upper Iowa's Josh Walker completes national title trek

Peacocks finish fourth with four All-Americans

CEDAR RAPIDS — Josh Walker’s college career was a long and winding road.

The twists and turns led him to a few different schools and a detour into the real world for a couple years. Then, Upper Iowa Coach Heath Grimm called and gave him directions to Fayette.

The path eventually continued to the top of the awards stand Saturday night at the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships at the U.S. Cellular Center. Walker (36-6) claimed the 133-pound national title with a 1-0 victory over Minnesota State’s George Farmah.

“It means everything,” said Walker, UIU's 16th NCAA champion. “I just know that no matter what happens in life I’m set. I’m not talking from a financial standpoint or anything like that. I’m set because I know that I finished my business.”

Walker (24-4) was a two-time NJCAA All-American in 2013 and 2014, but spent two years away from school and competition, working for a roofing company. He put his full effort into his work, but something was missing. Grimm got wind that Walker wanted another shot to close his career properly. Walker took advantage of the opportunity.

“It was just eating me alive, because I knew if I put it toward this that it would end the way it has (Saturday night),” said Walker, who placed seventh a year ago and finished as a four-time All-American.

Walker has been a positive addition since he arrived at Upper Iowa in December of 2016. He had a strong influence on his teammates as well.

“We got him on board,” Grimm said. “We’re very blessed because he brought in unbelievable technique. It helps out the lightweights like Maleek, our 141-pounder and even guys like Damian to see his skill sets.”

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Walker continued his stinginess into the finals against Farmah, beating him for the third time in less than two months. He scored an escape in the second for the lone point. Farmah chose neutral for the third and never came close to a takedown.

“Once again, confident in any position,” said Walker, who had a third-period ride out in the quarterfinals for a 2-0 win. “I’m confident on my feet. I’m confident in getting out. I think that really showed and made the difference.”

The finals marked his 21st straight victory, dating back to Dec. 29. Walker stymied opponents the entire tournament. He didn’t surrender a single point, recording two pins and outscoring foes by a total of 12-0.

“Dominant,” Walker said. “It all adds up to the ultimate feeling, so it is great.”

Teammate Maleek Williams joined Walker in the finals. Williams (30-10) earned a runner-up finish, falling to Central Oklahoma’s top-ranked Eli Hale, 17-2, at 125.

Upper Iowa finished fourth with four All-Americans and 58 points. In addition to the two finalists, Damian Penichet reached the semifinals and placed fourth at 149. Sophomore Nick Baumler was seventh at 197. Grimm said the Peacocks proved they reached their mental and physical peaks here, posting the program’s best finish since fourth in 2011.

“I’m real proud of punching two in the finals and three in the semifinals,” said Grimm, who was named Coach of the Year by the National Wrestling Coaches Association. “Coming up with four All-Americans, we want more but we’re going to stay focused and live in the present.”

Baumler, a two-time state finalist for North Fayette Valley, reached the podium in his first NCAA tournament. He made huge strides from his first season and can build off this performance.

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“For him to get the experience but get on the stage and with an odd-numbered placing, makes a big statement,” Grimm said. “He put a ton of work in in the summer and that’s why he’s here right now, winning matches at the championships in the winter.”

Before the finals even started, St. Cloud State finished off the team race. The Huskies had three finalists with 92 1/2 points before the finals for their third title in the last four seasons, winning back-to-back in 2015-16. SCSU topped defending champion Notre Dame College (Ohio).

“We had a great rally. The guys were really feeding off each other,” SCSU Coach Steve Costanzo said. “If you could have written the script it was ideal. One of the things I told our kids this morning was that we owed it to them to give our best effort because I thought we had more to give (on Friday). Our crowd wasn’t loud enough because we weren’t entertaining enough.

“We were much more entertaining (Saturday), got some excitement built up.”

California Baptist, coached by former Cedar Rapids Prairie state champion and Iowa NCAA runner-up Lennie Zalesky, placed third. The Lancers matched SCSU with a tournament-high three finalists, getting a title from 149-pounder Daxton Gordon and 70 1/2 points.

Wisconsin-Parkside’s Nick Becker won his third NCAA title. He topped California Baptist’s Nolan Kistler, 8-4, in the 174 final. Becker, who transferred after one season at Central Michigan, closed his career with an 89-match win streak for the Rangers. Becker was named Outstanding Wrestler.

Terrance Fanning made history, capturing the first national title for Wheeling Jesuit. He beat Kameron Teacher, of Notre Dame (Ohio), 8-2, for the heavyweight crown.

l Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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